Buyers Guide: How Do I Choose the Right Electronic Drum Kit?
Electronic drum kits, sometimes referred to as digital drum kits, have gained a lot of popularity in recent years. It's really no surprise either, when you think about all of the technological advancements we've seen. Because manufacturers continue developing their electronic drum kits, the sound and rebound of some sets is practically impossible to differentiate from acoustic drum sets.
Even so, opinions on the value of electronic drum kits are divided. Many drummers remain loyal to their acoustic drum sets, while others have converted to electronic. Personal preferences aside, the decision whether to use an electronic or acoustic kit also depends heavily on the music style you'll be playing and the amount of experience you have. The main question is: when is the best time to use an electronic drum kit, and what do you have to pay attention to when buying one? We will answer that question (and then some) throughout the remainder of this guide.
Electronic drum kit basics
Just like acoustic drum sets, electronic drum set combinations vary. Generally speaking, the toms, snare drum and cymbals are replaced by drum pads. Drum pads can generally be divided into three categories: rubber pads, silicone pads, and mesh head pads. Sensors, or triggers, are located underneath the surface, and work to transmit the signals to a drum module, where the signal is then translated to a drum sound. Thanks to this system, you can produce an endless number of sounds. The pedals that come with most electronic drums can be compared to traditional hi-hat and bass drum pedals. Less expensive versions such as the Roland HD-3 have a pedal that connects directly to a sensor. Pricier sets like the Roland TD-30KV utilise traditional hardware so the sensor is triggered mechanically. Thanks to this kind of technology, manufacturers such as Roland and Yamaha have been able to bring out some great kits.
If you've never been up close and personal with an electronic drum set, then you might think there's not much of a difference from set to set. Nothing could be less true, however. Many e-drum manufacturers have patented their own production techniques, making the range of electronic drum kits much more versatile even than that of acoustic drum sets.
A lot of folks want to know what the biggest difference is between the different types of drum pad materials. In short, mesh head pads and silicone pads offer the most natural rebound. Rubber pads are generally a lot harder, which makes the rebound less natural. Rubber heads are, however, still commonly used for the cymbals, as it feels similar to hitting a real metal cymbal. If you don't want to give up your metal cymbals, you can always use low-noise cymbals like the Zildjian GEN16. These perforated cymbals combine an acoustic feel with an electronic sound, while still producing minimal volume, just like the rest of your electronic kit.
In order to offer more dynamic possibility, most drum pads can recognise whether you're hitting them hard or soft. That means you can easily add accents and ghost notes to your music. Not only that, but there are also lots of drum pads that have different zones. These zones offer an even more realistic playing experience, because each one has a different sound. The CY-13R by Roland has three different zones and is a good example of this. It means that you can set up your cymbal pad so that the bell, the bow and the edge all produce different sounds.
The possibilities are practically endless when you throw drum modules into the mix. These modules translate triggers into audio signals. Depending on the brand and type, you can choose from a wide selection of drum sets and sound effects, making it possible to get an entirely new setup in mere minutes. More advanced sets offer the possibility to adjust sounds per drum pad and to save them. This functionality makes it possible to adjust the sound according to the environment for optimal acoustics. Other examples of the extra functionality that drum modules offer are a built-in metronome and a recording function.
Advantages of electronic vs acoustic
Whether you're for or against electronic drum sets, you have to admit that digital drum sets do have a lot of pretty handy features. For one thing, it's a lot easier to transport electronic drum sets, thanks to their compact size and light weight. Furthermore, drum modules offer another big advantage over acoustic sets because they offer such a variety of sounds and effects. If your current kit no longer fits your music style, then it's no problem! Just press a few buttons and you have an entirely new kit. Along with traditional music styles like jazz, rock and pop, you also have settings for drum & bass, hip-hop, dubstep and more. Not only that, but most drum modules are also equipped with MIDI, which makes it possible to record your playing on the computer and edit it afterword.
The biggest advantage of electronic drum kits, however, is always going to be the adjustable volume. You won't have to endure glaring neighbours any more, and you'll be able to practise when and where you want. If you'd like to buy an electronic drum set but you're not a huge fan of pseudo-futuristic E-drums, then you can always turn an acoustic set into an electronic one with the help of equipment like the Pearl TTP drum pads.
Disadvantages of electronic vs acoustic
With a lot of electronic drum sets, you'll barely be able to hear a difference in the sound when you compare it to an acoustic kit. Even so, it's still always going to be a reroduction of an acoustic drum kit, and not the real thing. A lot of folks in the acoustic kit camp say that they miss the feeling of playing on a real set when playing an electronic kit, especially in when it comes to rebound and sound variation. At the end of the day, you're still not getting the real sound—you can't scrape a drum stick over the ribs of a cymbal, tap a wooden shell or smoothly dampen a cymbal. You'll still develop all of the techniques, however, and electronic drum sets are getting more and more parts, such as touch-sensitive hoops so you can do rim shots and rim clicks. Despite these developments, though, there's still a long way to go before electronic drum sets have the same feel as acoustic ones.
Electronic drum kit amplifier or headphones?
Keep in mind that electronic drum kits don't produce sound themselves like acoustic ones do. That's why most drum modules have a headphone jack, so you can practise in peace and quiet without bothering those around you, and vice versa. You can connect just about any kind of headphones, but if you want to ensure that the sound doesn't leak out of the headphones, we suggest that you use closed headphones. It's important to make sure that the headphones can produce sufficient bass levels, and that they fit well and are comfortable so you can avoid irritation during longer drum sessions. We've created a drum headphones category with all of the best headphones specifically for this purpose. If you'd rather have the power and punch of a speaker system for monitoring purposes, or if you often practise in a band and want to be able to hear yourself well while you play, then we'd recommend an electronic drum amplifier. These ensure that you get the sound pressure, punch and vibration that you might miss with headphones.
Because there's such a big difference between electronic and acoustic drum sets, there really isn't a since 'best choice'. The most important thing is to know what you're looking for in a drum set, as well as what you want to accomplish with it. Ask yourself some questions! What kind of music do I want to drum to? Am I looking for a specific sound? How do I want to use the drum set? In the studio, on stage, or purely for myself? These are important questions that will help you narrow down the choices considerably. At this point in time, the biggest factor will be whether the feel of an acoustic kit or the options and possibilities of an electronic kit are more important to you. Manufacturers like Zildjian are constantly working to combine the best of both worlds, such as with their Gen16 series. Thanks to constant innovation, it's probably only a matter of time before electronic drum kits also feel like acoustic ones. Once that day comes, you might see even the most ardent acoustic drum set supporters converting!